Saturday, August 29, 2009

Music to Our Ears

This spring we put the music back in the library.

As part of our efforts to bring Clermont to life, we installed a small stereo and began poking around in the small stack of records that we have in collections storage. This handful of recorded music was given to Clermont by Honoria in the 1980s, and is purported to have belonged to her father. It includes a few operatic pieces (my favorites being those by Lucrezia Bori), some walzes, foxtrots, and Sousa marches.

I next made a visit to Archive.org, a repository of all sorts of modern and historic media, including a large gathering of early music recordings (click here to hear a collection of marches played by the Sousa band when Sousa was still conducting it!). I picked quite a few that were recorded by the same artists John Henry had chosen or, when I could not find those, many of the same songs recorded in the same time period to keep the authentic sound. I recorded them to cds where they have been livening up the library for several months now.

This recreational space was aparently where John Henry sat listening to his records when Honoria was little. Disc-shaped records began to be popular in the second and third decades of the 20th century and finally won out over their cylindrical competitors in the late 1920s.

But what of music at Clermont before the 1900s? Although Wax cylindrical recordings had been popular since the 1880s, we have none in our collections. Certainly this doesn't preclude the possibility that the Livingstons had a cyclindrical phonograph and rid themselves of it with the advent of the new media (how many of us out there are trying to get rid of our VHS cassettes as dvds become the preferred medium?). But given John Henry's reticence to accept other new technologies as they developed--notably indoor plumbing and the automobile--I tend to think there was little mechanized music at Clermont before John Henry's disc records.

To be sure, there is plenty of other evidence of music in the house. A 19th century Enlglish music box that played 10 different songs is displayed in the study, and a piano forte (the modern piano's older cousin) has been in a place of honor in the drawing room for over a century.

Before the advent of recorded music, the Livingstons, like other families, were resposible for making their own. For many young women, learning to play an instrument or sing was part of becoming an accomplished person. Not only was it an emotional, yet refined, form of expression, but it also served to entertain those around you. For instance, Jane Austin's books often feature the importance of friends singing and playing for one another at social gatherings, and in Little Women descriptions of Beth's piano skills were an important part of creating her selfless and gentle character.

Livingston portraits used in the 1986 exhibit catalogue A Portrait of Livingston Manor show three young Livingston women of the early 19th century depicted with musical insturments: Angelica (in the cream dress with a harp), Serena (in the red dress with a harp), and Coralie (with the guitar).




Similarly, we know that during the same time period as Angelica and Serena were posing for their portraits Margaret Maria, the Chancellor's daughter, was also playing the harp. Somewhere between 1804 and 1813, Her father gave her a tiny book of harp music (when closed, it is almost small enough to lay on an open hand).



A diary entry from Nancy Shippen Livingston in 1784 also references a harpsichord in the drawing room at Clermont, which toddler Peggy enjoyed hearing very much (surely a sign of child growing towards a refined adulthood).

With importance of dancing in refined society during the 18th and 19th cenuturies, there is also little doubt that professional musicians made appearnances at Clermont as well for both social events and instruction for the children. Children who had learned to play an instrument or sing for themselves could probably be heard practicing on a semi-regular basis, and eventually in the mid-ninteeth century two-person piano pieces became part of many courting rituals.
Part of recreating the life in a historic museum is recreation of the sounds. Visually, we attempt to lay out props in a way that suggests that their users have set them down for only a moment--that someone will be back to finish their tea to pick up their pen and begin writing again even as we are standing there. But there are so many more parts to what makes a house feel lived-in: sounds and smells being important additions.
So while I am working on a way to bring the smell of a coal fire to the kitchen, I hope that some of who have toured Clermont this year have noticed the jangling, tinny tunes playing in the library and that they have helped to bring the Livingstons to life for you.

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